Nandipha Mntambo: Transcending Instinct
"The action of the body is at the centre of all my work, whether performance or sculpture. Thinking of how someone sits on something was a natural progression."
Southern Guild, Cape Town
16th February – 7th April 2022
IN MID-FEBRUARY, Southern Guild opened ‘Transcending Instinct’, an installation of four large-scale seating objects and two paintings by South African artist Nandipha Mntambo. As well as being the artist’s first solo exhibition with the gallery, ‘Transcending Instinct’ also marks her first venture into functional sculpture.
Mntambo is a multidisciplinary artist, moving fluidly between sculpture, drawing, performance, video and photography, who rose to prominence for her cowhide sculptures. As she explains to Emma Crichton-Miller, Editor of The Design Edit, Mntambo sees her oeuvre to date as a continuous and interconnected body of work. Based in Johannesburg today, she studied and worked for many years in Cape Town.
Emma Crichton-Miller (EC-M): Who’s idea was the exhibition? Did it come from Southern Guild, or was it something that you had wanted to do?
Nandipha Mntambo (NM): I’ve had a relationship with Southern Guild for many years and we’d been speaking about having an exhibition for around six years now … and it never really happened. Life and Covid took us off that path. So it’s been interesting to come back to that conversation and actually have it happen now.
EC-M: What was your experience of the pandemic?
NM: The Covid situation was very complex because at the beginning no-one knew how it would play out, or what was going on. But during the first lockdown, what was interesting was having the time and the space to actually think about things. I made the decision to leave the gallery I’d been working with for 12-15 years and then other relationships became more of a possibility
EC-M: What were you making during lockdown? Which aspects of your work were you able to pursue?
NM: All of them. I recently had a show at Everard Read in Cape Town. I started researching, ages ago, this army of women, the Agoodjie, that used to protect the kings of Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin). I didn’t realise quite how much, in other works, I had made reference to this army of women.
I was able to travel to Benin and do a performance, record a video and take some photographs. I worked at the same time on two large bronze works and my sculpture and paintings … and then obviously the furniture, with Southern Guild.
EC-M: At what point did the crossover between the animal and human kingdom become such a pressing theme for you?
NM: The conversation has always been happening in my work. Working with cowhide, being interested in bullfighting and in mythology. It has always been there.
EC-M: There is also a whole exploration of gender in your work and I wondered which themes you felt you could bring to the fore through design?
NM: I’ve always been a person who thinks about form and shape a lot. So, to start with I went back to old artworks I had made, whether they were drawings or sculptures, and looked at the form and shapes. And then reinterpreted them in a way that is functional, rather than just visual. Form and function, I guess.
EC-M: The human body is such a central part of your work, and how that plays out through design is very different. I wonder how you found moving from the celebration and exploration of the female/human body to working that out through design?
NM: In general, the work I make is about using my body. So whether it is through performance, or sculpture, it is the action of the body that’s at the centre of the work. Thinking of how someone sits on something, or how you would use something in your home, was a natural progression in a way.
EC-M: You use both cattle and zebra hides ? What is it about the material that inspires?
NM: Well the first thing is that the cow is an animal that every civilisation has some kind of connection to, whether it’s that you eat it, wear it, use it as some kind of money exchange, or use it in rituals … For me that makes the material and animal itself a kind of universal connector. Recently, I started working with the zebra as I was thinking about the idea of hiding in plain sight (within the context of an army situation, or protecting oneself). What is interesting about the zebra is that they each have their own, unique hair print (or fingerprint, if you want to call it that). So when you see them as a group you can’t tell one from the other. And so that idea of hiding in plain sight and camouflage is what I was thinking about.
EC-M: Are there certain stories or bodies of mythology that you draw on? Is there any narrative aspect to these pieces?
NM: Yes and no. I’ve had an interest in different myths over time, which have played into my work, so at one point I was interested in bullfighting. At a different point I was interested in the story of the minotaur. At another point I was interested in the story of Nandi and how Hindu people celebrate that god.
EC-M: Do you think you’d like to do more along this line?
NM: I loved it. It was really so interesting as I’m used to making things myself, and in this instance I had to let go of that and allow other people to be trusted to make certain things. What’s been amazing is understanding how to relay an idea in a way that somebody else gets exactly what you mean. And they can then run with the physical element of making things. So it’s a new skill in a way …
EC-M: Tell me about the paintings in the show …
NM: I’ve been painting for a little while. I’m not a painter by training and so I am still trying to figure out my language within the space of painting. I’ve been doing it for around five years now. Because of the way that Trevyn & Julian [the founders of Southern Guild] think about space, rather than just about objects, we thought it might be nice to have a different element, like these paintings – so it becomes more of an environment, rather than just about objects placed on the floor. They’re very big paintings (around 2.7 m in length). We were working on making an environment that envelops you as you walk in.
EC-M: Did they come out of the work you did in Benin or out of a separate line of inspiration, are they abstract?
NM: Yes, they are abstract. I’ve been painting these big, black humps for a couple of years and so I just continued with that.
EC-M: Where did these big, black humps come from?
NM: I don’t know yet! I’m just exploring that space of painting and layering and having a situation where you can see through layers of colour and a 3-dimensional way of thinking about paint. I have no idea of where it comes from!